Monday, December 29, 2008

A Christmas Miracle in Philadelphia

As a season ticket holder for a decade now, I’ve watched the Philadelphia Eagles play an awful lot of home games. I like to call the Eagles’ the most “professional team” in the NFC. Normally, Philadelphia doesn’t get the severe performance swings that characterized the Rhodes and Ryan terms- you get the solid B effort almost every afternoon.

But last night, the faithful were treated to an Eagles’ team that came out not with their typical clinical professionalism, but a wild effort that subsumed the Cowboys in destruction and pain. Given a miraculous lease on life, the Eagles went to the proverbial emotional well:
A crowd that seemed cheerfully resigned during tailgate time to rooting for an Eagles team playing out an unraveled string just to knock Dallas out of the wild-card berth was totally, insanely bonkers, high-fiving, chest-bumping, howling through all but the dregs of the epic humiliation.
That was Bill Conlin. Heavens, it was a miracle- to cash in this inside straight of an insane upset of Tampa Bay, the Bears’ loss and this rout of Dallas. Sunday morning, I remembered my probability math from high school- put Oakland over Tampa at 5:1, the Eagles as a stone toss-up, and a loss by either Chicago or Minnesota at two in three- and came up with 15 to 1 chance to get in as a Wild Card. In the Andy Reid era, only Fred-Ex’s miracle 4th and 27 grab in the play-offs was a bigger long shot in a bigger spot.

Now we get to read such wondrous material as this- "Quittin' time: Dallas Cowboys flop in finale":

PHILADELPHIA – Wade Phillips presides over the most gutless team in franchise history.

That's his legacy.

And this:
I saw a shameful performance Sunday here at Lincoln Financial Field.

The quarterback needs to answer for it.
Chuckle, it is reminescent of this "report card" from Christmas Day a few years back.

As with any miracle, it is hard to figure out what to say, how to quantify the inexplicable. I guess we can start with Frank Helps You Think It All Out was wrong. I was wrong to recommend the benching of McNabb- a move I thought justified by the remoteness of making the play-offs post-Ravens debacle. Now that the Eagles are in- no justification is needed. You absolutely postpone the future and experiments- the future is now in Minnesota for this club.

For all the trees killed and ink spilled over the “improving the offense”, the real key to the turnaround was “improving the defense” from good to real darn good, maybe even great. McNabb and Westbrook are still a pretty flawed group- but since the home loss to New York, the defense has been a very good unit. True, there was the Ravens debacle- and a generous helping of Cleveland and Washington and Cincinnati. But they are better over there.

I think you can find two reasons for that. First, the ‘backers- which were a real mess the first half- look so much more athletic now that the immobile Gaither is gone, Akeem Jordan is in his place, and Stewart Bradley knows what is going on. The thing about introducing first and second year players into the mix mid-season is that any talent fall off is compensated by “fresh” and “un-injured”.

I’m not sure Jordan is a plus over sixteen games- but as a fresh alternative he seems to bring new capacity out there to a group that was suffering. The Eagles did a similar thing with Gaither a few years ago- an okay player who moved up quite a bit simply by being a fresh reinforcement. Anyway, a real weakness was stabilized.

The other real defensive weakness- the safeties- was fixed also by Dawkins re-emergence as a good NFL player. His pro-bowl status is a reach of the first magnitude- but he is playing much better. This is more a matter of coaching- the Eagles were trying to limit and protect the veteran safety- giving him second tier coverage responsibilities. Now they are letting him be the old Dawkins- roaming where his instincts take him. With no real responsibility, Dawkins can’t be exploited in a match-up play after play with, say, the third wide-out or tailback. But the Eagles keep his savvy and hitting on the field. Basically Dawkins blitzes and tries not to get beat horribly deep providing help. Add some real good cover corners- and he’s back to contributing.